Thursday, May 13, 2021

Forty Years Ago: John Paul II and the Precipice of History

Left: Our Lady of Fatima / Right: John Paul II collapses after being struck by assassin's bullet


May 13th.

I usually mark this day every year on the blog. On May 13, 1917 — while Europe was in the grip of an unprecedentedly violent, senseless, fratricidal war — Mary, the mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, the tender and merciful mother of all of us — first appeared to three peasant children in Fatima, Portugal: Saint Francisco, Saint Jacinta, and the Servant of God Lucia.

In the ensuing months, Mary taught them many things. She asked great sufferings from these children, showing them the depths of the evil of sin, and the terrors of hell which are the fruit of the utter contradiction between the boundless love of God and the self-violence of those who choose the nothingness of sin. 

In seeing these horrors in one of their visions, the children of Fatima were also given special graces to implore God's mercy for sinners, unite themselves with Jesus in their own sufferings, and share in His work of "reparation" for the sins of the world. God does not want anyone to be lost in the fires of hell. God does not want anyone to choose to plunge into that endless burning vortex of nihilistic self-centeredness. God created us for the transfiguring joy of the "fire" that His glory infuses into those who receive Him. "God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living... It was the wicked who with hands and words invited death, considered it a friend, and pined for it, and made a covenant with it" (Wisdom 1:13, 16).

God took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary to save us.

And so the children of Fatima learned and passed on to us that great prayer, that plea for Divine Mercy that we pray at the end of every decade of the Rosary: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven especially those who are most in need of thy mercy!"

We need to stay with Jesus, trust in His merciful love, and pray that hearts will open to Him. Today we live in a world in which more people than ever benefit from advances in material power, where there is a broad diffusion of general (albeit confused) sentiment for human solidarity, but also a widespread absense of awareness of human transcendence — of the human vocation to seek the Mystery of God who has revealed and given Himself in Jesus Christ.

Without God, human existence becomes an insoluble riddle, in which the desire for goodness — however sincere — is frustrated by its own ambivalence, and where doing evil too often seems tragically inescapable or simply expedient. Ignoring our dependence on God, and ignoring our need for His salvation from our sins, has led to a twisting of even the most noble human aspirations toward the service of dark and monstrous aberrations. Here indeed we find many examples from the history of the twentieth century, and we can see the timeliness of Mary's appeal for conversion, prayer, and penance at Fatima, while that century was still young. She called on us to take refuge in her Immaculate Heart and to pray the Rosary so that we might draw closer to Christ's love and be instruments of His mercy in the world.

I remember May 13th every year for another reason, for an event that took place in my own lifetime.

Forty years ago — on May 13, 1981 — the goodness of God and the maternal solicitude of the Blessed Mother brought great mercy to the world, so that a singular witness of Christ's truth and love might continue to shine on this earth for nearly 24 more years, and also (perhaps) so that terrestrial history itself would draw back from the brink of destruction.

It is difficult to convey the atmosphere of the world in which I grew up. The ideology of Communism — a utopian atheistic materialism — held part of the world in a seemingly unbreakable iron grip. Much of the rest of the world labored under the confusion and reductionism of the de-facto consumerist materialism of the decadent West. People everywhere lived under the shadow of intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons powerful enough to destroy the world many times over.

The world we live in today still has many of these problems (and others as well), and yet I am inclined to believe that the depth of the sudden and irrevocable danger that humanity as a whole faces has diminished somewhat from those days in 1981. A little more than two years earlier, a "young" Polish bishop (he was my current age, 58) was elected Pope John Paul II. In 1979, he visited his native land where people lived under communism. He assured them of Christ's love and he reaffirmed their rights as human persons. Poland was stirred with a new hope, and the next year (1980) saw the birth of the first independent trade union in the communist world — Solidarity — that stood up to the Soviet-Union-controlled Polish communist government and won important concessions.

The hard line ideologues who controlled the Soviet Communist Party (and de-facto nearly all the other Communist Parties in Eastern Europe) concluded that this new Pope was a dangerous man. He had to be eliminated.

A Turkish professional assassin — Mehmet Ali Agca — was hired through the Bulgarian Secret Police. He entered Saint Peter's Square on May 13, 1981 and fired two shots at close range, and the Pope fell. It was a textbook assassination, with one bullet entering the abdomen, ordinarily a guaranteed fatal shot.

But Pope John Paul II did not die on May 13, 1981. In one of the visions of 1917, the Fatima children saw a "bishop in white" felled by gunfire. Mary had told them that "the Holy Father would have much to suffer." John Paul II did suffer much, from this wound and its after-effects, as well as from many other things. But the bullet "miraculously" (it seemed) did not fatally damage any major organs.

Instead John Paul II lived to see the fall of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe by the end of that decade, and the fall of the Soviet Union two years later. He lived, regained his health, traveled the world, preached the gospel, led countless human hearts to a decisive encounter with Jesus Christ and encouraged many more to persevere in following Christ, to trust in His mercy... and to love, venerate, and rely upon the maternal tenderness of His Mother's Heart.

"One hand pulled the trigger; another hand guided the bullet," Saint John Paul II said. Through his epic ministry over the next quarter-century (and even today, through his intercession among the saints), John Paul II has been an instrument of Jesus's saving love and mercy toward those on the brink of hell, and maybe also toward human history teetering on the precipice of destruction.